Hands Around The Library Author's Blog

Blog posts from Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, the authors of The Hands Around The Library - Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books.

The Author's Blog

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As we were writing Hands Around the Library, the young librarian who became the narrator in our story – Shaymaa Saad – talked about why the library had become so important to young people:

Young people can “read, chat, make friends, dream about the future, think creatively, talk, and discuss all about personal, political and whatever issues are racing through their minds.”

Young People's Library - Photo by Bibliotheca Alexandrina 

Library director Ismail Serageldin is quite convinced that these opportunities helped generate not only a desire to protect the library but the enthusiasm for reform and revolution itself in Egypt. “This revolution in Egypt was a liberal revolution. People who believe in democracy and freedom of expression, in pluralism and openness,” he told NPR at the time. “And I’m proud and happy that the Library of Alexandria may have contributed in some small way to supporting the kinds of ideas that have found their expression in the young people who led this revolution.”

The current direction of the revolution in Egypt remains uncertain, but the importance of freedom of expression, pluralism, and the chance to vote freely and fairly is not.  In our own country, where voter turnout was only 62 percent even in the highly contested 2008 presidential race, it is heartening to see people crowding the polls to vote early and we can only hope that total turnout this year will grow. 

The right and opportunity to vote is an incredible privilege and responsibility.  Egyptians who had never voted in their lives until last year (because it never mattered) still talk with excitement about casting their first ballot ever. The ballot uses symbols for candidates because so many voters are illiterate – but they still voted!


Egyptian Presidential ballot showing candidates Ahmed Shafiq (top) and now-President Mohamed Morsi

Two relatively new American organizations are working to make sure young people fully understand the importance of voting and civic engagement generally. “The story of making and keeping America is the most noble of stories,” says The Dreyfuss Initiative - started by actor Richard Dreyfuss – whose mission is “to teach our kids how to run our country with common sense and realism, before it’s time for them to run the country. If we don’t, someone else will run this country and the experiment of government by, for, and of the people will have failed.” The Dreyfuss Initiative is creating a curriculum with lessons on reason, logic, clarity of thought and expression, agility of mind and ethics. 

iCivics, created in 2009 by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is preparing young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st century citizens. iCivics has produced educational video games and other free teaching materials, including online competitions among student-designed projects that have an impact in their communities.

Libraries in schools and communities have the resources to help foster civic engagement.  Our own website includes related activities and discussion topics. The Kirkus reviewer of Hands Around the Library coined the phrase “Freedom and libraries: an essential combination,” writing of the “palpable ebullience” of protestors who unfurled the giant Egyptian flag on the steps of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  

                                                              Photo credit Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Teachers and librarians, parents and grandparents, authors and artists, neighbors and voters – we must make it our mission, in and out of election years, to plant the seeds and cultivate this same spirit of palpable ebullience about the promise of  America.

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Librarian button“The most fantastic thing about modern libraries in general, and Arlington's (VA) libraries specifically, is the depth of what they offer. There are very good online research resources, tons of movies to check out for free, classes and meetings, soooooo many picture books, a limited foreign language collection, music to borrow - and helpful librarians to help you find what you need. When the weather is beastly, it's a cool place to let your kid come and play with a puzzle, read a book, and play on the computer. The summer programs with performances and movies are also fantastic.   Also, my community is there - in all its wildly varied colors, languages, socioeconomic statuses, ages. If you aren't really giving your local library a workout, you are missing out on so much!”

This library lover in Arlington, Virginia, was responding to a Washington Post poll about how people are using their libraries.  Demand is as strong as ever, according to the Washington Post article – “Whether measured by circulation size, customer visits to branches or Web sites, or participation in classes, reading programs or information inquiries, people are using their public libraries.”

This is National Friends of Libraries Week, sponsored by United for Libraries, “a national network of enthusiastic library supporters who believe in the importance of libraries as the social and intellectual centers of communities and campuses.”   Or as the Kirkus reviewer of Hands Around the Library put it: Freedom and libraries – an essential combination.  The protesters in Egypt, whose story we tell in Hands Around the Library, certainly appreciated the importance of the library as a place to learn, share knowledge, cross cultural and religious boundaries – a place where “we were free inside the library even when we were not free outside.”


Our American libraries need each of us just as much as the grand Bibliotheca Alexandrina depended on the Egyptians. In fact, United for Libraries has just created EveryLibrary.org, the first and only national organization dedicated exclusively to political action at a local level to create, renew, and protect public funding for libraries of all types. Is your library threatened by loss of funding? Shorter hours? Even closing?  EveryLibrary.org has resources and tools to help, including a list of 2012 ballot issues that need voter support.

Consider joining your local library Friends group. We will be providing signed copies of Hands Around the Library to the two Friends groups that win awards for the creativity of their library celebrations. I will be speaking at the Takoma Park Library in Maryland, a presentation sponsored by the Friends of the Takoma Park Library. Soon I will be working with the Friends of the Library Montgomery County, MD, to plan additional events.  In addition to advocating for libraries, the group has regular Literary Luncheons – including Washington Post assistant editor David Maraniss on November 15.

A library card is one of the first concrete bits of personal ownership and identification we can give our children.  Henry Ford’s grandson, Edsel B. Ford II, commented once that his own son placed “that brand new driver’s license in his wallet alongside his library card, and it occurred to me that these two documents have much in common. Both support America’s free and independent way of life. The driver’s license allows my son, and all of our sons and daughters, the individual freedom of personal mobility. The library card gives him, and all of our sons and daughters, the freedom of thought and speech so essential for members of a democratic society.”




Hands Around the Library is also featured this week on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog and on Cindy Woodruff’s Peace Study Center blog “Bringing World Events to Children Through Picture Books.”

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We entered a cocoon of curiosity, acceptance and eagerness to share at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia, when we celebrated the publication of Hands Around the Library last month. Fourth and fifth graders Skyped between Burgundy School and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Ryan asked about the Egyptians’ favorite food. Roksan answered from Egypt, “Pizza and hamburgers.” The similarities and shared interests kept tumbling out before we moved to more substantive issues.

When is it important to stand up for what you believe? Nine-year-old Hatem in Egypt said, “I think it’s worth standing up for what you think if someone is oppressed or being harmed.” Eliza in America says freedom means that even “if you don’t have much money, it doesn’t mean you are not allowed to vote.” In Egypt, Roksan said “Freedom means to be free to say what you want without fear of punishment. Egyptians lived for 30 years without this freedom.”

Do you feel you have that freedom now to speak?

“Yes, of course.”

You also hear one boy say he was too young to participate in the marches outside so he used Facebook to send the message that everyone in his country was looking for freedom. Egyptian children’s librarian Lobna spoke of her pride in “voting for the first time and choosing who I want to be president of my country. I can say yes or I can say no without any fear.”

There was also a discussion about libraries. The Egyptian children participate in many activities at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, from helping out as members of the Children’s Library Friends to drawing and painting, making posters and of course reading. But this is their only library, while the American children all raised their hands when asked if they had a library close to their homes. We were all reminded that our free public libraries are a treasure we too should be willing to protect. This is National Friends of Libraries Month. As comedian Paula Poundstone says in the video link from our homepage, “If you haven’t been to the library lately, you’re overdue.”


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Our guest blogger is Shaymaa Saad, the young librarian who welcomed Susan Roth in the Children’s Library at Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2009. Shaymaa became “the narrator” in Hands Around the Library. She was quite pleased to receive her copy of Hands, writing to us that, “For me in particular, I thought I am living that day all over again, I could smell the revolution with all its feelings and details … the Arabic words were the first to catch my eye, since we wrote and held and waved with these very particular signs. The pictures are very expressive and it adds more and more value to the book, making it very much Egyptian.”  Now looking at recent events in Egypt, Shaymaa shares her thoughts and concerns again.

A great Egyptian scientist and philosopher, Dr. Moustafa Mahmoud, once said, “If you truly want to understand a person, watch his/her actions and behavior in a moment of free will, and then you will be completely surprised. You might find the prostitute praying, the saint committing the sin, the doctor drinking poison, and your friend back-stabbing you”

This is pretty much what Hands Around the Library is about - monitoring and recording a moment of free will for the Egyptians.

The very recent events might have brought out the worst in both sides, not just Egyptians and Americans, but the Arabs and the West, giving a misleading image of mutual hatred. The truth is clear to everyone that political motivations are behind those vicious actions, while if you try to recall the moments of free will, you will be surprised by the behavior of the individuals.

You will see how Egyptians and all Arabs were thrilled to see the Empire State Building glowing green during the Muslim feast “Eid al Fitr”, and how this book Hands Around The Library in this very critical time tries to show Egyptians at their best, when young people stood together holding hands around the great library of Alexandria to protect it from any possible damage, motivated by their sense of responsibility and loyalty to this cultural center. No one paid attention to religion, age, gender, color or sexual orientation. Other moments of free will which reflect the true nature of Egyptians came when Muslims and Christians united in Tahrir Square, protecting each other habitually at the times of prayer; again it was not an organized action – it was spontaneous.

Now what I am trying to say, is that if we try to judge other humans with different backgrounds, upon what media tell us, or upon other people’s experiences, we will then have a fake image, a rich environment for hatred, leading to more wars and destruction, but if we try to raise our children on crossing the bridge and interacting with the other, many misunderstandings will be cleared to our all benefit.

One good example of such cross cultural small projects was that one when we let children from Alexandria, Virginia, and Alexandria Egypt, Skype for about an hour – both when I led a Skype session in 2010 and again last week. The children were surprised to find that the similarities were much greater than the differences. Now imagine a generation of those children growing to lead their countries to a better world with better understanding of the “other,” again for the benefit of everyone.

Last but not least, thanks to Hands around the Library, and such decent initiatives for contributing to creating a more peaceful environment.

Shaymaa S. Abdelazim



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Our first school visit for Hands Around the Library was interrupted by a fire drill.  Four flights up, four flights down, four flights back up.  But with calm determination, teacher Milton Bryant quickly brought order back to a room bursting with lively third graders in the middle of a summery afternoon. 

You could have heard Susan’s tweezers drop as she created a character by ripping and cutting paper in front of these youngsters at Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C., down the road from the Anacostia Public Library.

Thanks to An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation, which invited us to Ketcham, every child took home a copy of Hands Around the Library. The children hovered over us, spelling their names out loud, so we could sign each copy personally.

 I asked Dara LaPorte, formerly manager of the Children and Teen Department at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, to talk about the work of the foundation that she recently started with Heidi Powell, school/community liaison manager at Politics and Prose.

“I think my favorite quote from a child has been, "Will you come again so that I can have another book?  I want to start a whole collection of them!’

child reading book

“At every event, as soon as a child gets his or her book, he or she opens it and starts reading.   In line, walking out of the room, still seated on the floor.  

“I also love the awed silence and the looks on children's faces when an illustrator draws.  Then there is always a gasp when the picture becomes something they recognize.

“Several times, we have gone back to a school and seen books that we have previously given to the library in the return basket to be re-circulated.  Kids have taken them out!

“Children are reading the books we are giving them, teachers are integrating the books into their curricula, children are writing more after author's writing workshops, science teachers are going on field trips after receiving science books.

“Everyone who participates in an event with An Open Book leaves richer:  

  • The children are excited to read a book that they own.  
  • Teachers have new ideas and materials to use in the classroom.  
  • Authors have thought about their craft and their audience in new ways, and have usually answered insightful questions that they have never before been asked.”


We are indeed richer for the experience – thank you to the children of Ketcham Elementary School – and may books inspire you to dream big!  An Open Book offers its literacy programs and author/artist visits to any Washington, D.C. area school receiving federal Title I funds.  

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